Pole-starter a solid pick; Hamlin to drop to rear after engine change
Because Phoenix is a rhythm track, practices are the most important sessions of the weekend. Drivers with good records often jump to the top of the speed charts immediately, but there is plenty of time for others to erase the deficit.
Qualification did not hold very many surprises with pre-race favorites occupying the first four rows, but practice helped clarify who should be this week’s favorites and dark horses.
Mark Martin was listed as a dark horse in this week’s fantasy preview based largely on his modest salary cap. He confirmed his worth and should actually be elevated to favored status based on his pole winning run, plus his fastest laps in both of Saturday practices.
Phoenix has not been very kind to Jimmie Johnson since it was reconfigured and repaved in fall 2011. He knows he needs to improve on this track, particularly because it hosts a Chase race, so he entered the Dollar General 200 for the NASCAR Nationwide Series. The extra seat time contributed to a qualification effort of third for the Subway Fresh Fit 500, but most importantly he posted the fastest 10-lap average in the first practice session and the fifth-best average in Happy Hour.
Danica Patrick struggled in qualification, but improved to 35th in Saturday morning’s session; she was 34th in Happy Hour. This is a track that rewards seat time. It is important to note that she improved from a qualification of 37th last fall to finish 17th. In fact, she improved over qualifications in all but two of her attempts last year.
Denny Hamlin felt a vibration in practice and the team has elected to change engines. Dropping to the rear of the field to start the race certainly does not help matters any, and it could keep the No. 11 from getting the track position needed to win the race, but he should be able to earn a top-10 and possibly add to his two-race streak of top-fives. Players should take note that his official starting position is still eighth, which what the pass differential will be based on.
One of this week’s dark horse selections, Aric Almirola did not make very much noise in practice or qualification. He rolls off the grid mid-pack in 18th and posted only the 27th-fastest lap in Saturday morning’s session. His fastest lap in Happy Hour improved to 12th-best, but his 10-lap average in that session ranked in the middle of the chart. At 312 miles in length, this is a sprint by NASCAR standards and that does not give him much time to work on the car.
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